AIRSWEEE participant Kshama Hastak’s Sarthak Foundation provides free-of-cost education to children from economically disadvantaged sections of society.
Young children from economically weaker sections become vulnerable to being recruited as child labor when they are unable to access educational opportunities. According to UNICEF, “There are close to six million out-of-school children in India. Out of 100 students, 29 percent of girls and boys drop out of school before completing the full cycle of elementary education, and often they are the most marginalized children.” Kshama Hastak decided to make a difference. Her efforts resulted in the formation of Sarthak Foundation in Lucknow. Started in 2013 with six children, it now serves about 1,000 children in seven centers and a primary rural school.
Dedicated to bringing education to the doorstep of the poor and traditionally marginalized, the seeds for Sarthak Foundation were laid when Hastak used to travel to teach at Amity University, Lucknow. “I used to see these children from nearby slums and would often give them something to eat,” she says. “One day, all I could offer was sweetened fennel.” The children were very excited and watching the joy on their faces made Hastak ponder on how these children were deprived of basic opportunities because their families were too poor to send them to school. She started visiting these children and teaching them. Hastak thought she would work with them as long as she stayed in Lucknow. “But they shared their plans for the future with me,” she says, “and I realized that they were depending on me to fulfill their dreams.”
Within the next four months, Hastak created the Sarthak Foundation project. “Initially, my students from Amity University helped set up classes and reach out to children,” says Hastak. The foundation works through “Yellow Rooms” located in different areas where children are taught, free of cost, school lessons as well as life skills. Classes run for five to six hours daily. “When we started, we would teach in the basic rooms available in the slums,” says Hastak. “The children told us that their favorite color was yellow.” So, each room was painted bright yellow, and equipped with computers and television sets.
The program starts with a seven-day orientation, after which the children are divided into three sections based on their learning levels. Those who have had access to no learning are called Tenderfeet, the second group is called Learners and the third are the Advancers. “Our students are mainly beggars, ragpickers or those who work menial jobs in shops,” says Hastak.
The program lays a great deal of emphasis on gender equality and ethics and runs programs like Bachon Ki Panchayat (children’s government), which are predominantly led by girls. “We ensure that girls, too, have access to education because they bear the brunt of poverty,” says Hastak. When Sarthak educators reach out to people, they say that without the girls, they cannot start the classes. This helps ensure that families send their daughters too to these classes.
An essential element of the foundation’s program is school inclusion, through which these children are admitted to private and government schools, where they have maintained an almost negligible dropout rate. Sarthak Foundation sponsors their high school education and plans to enroll them in skill-building courses after graduation, with the aim of making them educated as well as employable. The organization has a record of 95 percent enrollment into formal schools within two years of setting up a Yellow Room. They have also increased regular school attendance of children from 20 percent to an average of 80 percent.
Sarthak Foundation has also established Gurukul, a low-fee primary school in Sonari village in Uttar Pradesh, catering to children in the area. The aim is to ensure that these children do not have to move out of their villages to search for education and employment.
When the government’s COVID-19 prevention measures came into effect, the foundation started organizing sessions on life skills for children from economically disadvantaged and rural families through YouTube and WhatsApp. It also collaborated with community kitchens and local government officials in Lucknow to provide food items regularly to almost 300 families.
Hastak quit her job in 2016 and has since been working full time with the foundation. In 2018, she participated in the All-India Roadshow on Women’s Economic Empowerment through Entrepreneurship (AIRSWEEE), a Public Affairs New Delhi grants program implemented by the U.S.-based nonprofit organization The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE Inc.) and its India partners. Hastak says that Project AIRSWEEE helped her enhance her leadership skills. “I created a special module of what I had learnt for our teachers and volunteers,” she says. “Project AIRSWEEE has been a tremendous support for me in a lot of ways.” While there’s been “tangible benefits” like improved financial management, marketing plans and donor engagement, the project has also had “a lot of intangible benefits,” she continues. “I’ve been connected to wonderful people, and the association has continued after the workshop. A lot of them have got involved with my foundation, and they have been helping me, connecting me to new people. I’ve also learned lessons on leadership, team management, ethics and integrity.”
Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.